Our North American culture has become obsessed with happiness and has made itself miserable in the process. Trying too hard to be happy is doomed to failure: happiness is the by-product of a life well-lived, not a goal that you can reach by targeting it. But compulsive perfectionists have the opposite problem.
They actually don’t appear to be very interested in happiness. To the degree that they’re interested in it, they tend to believe that perfection, completion, and control will make them happy—or at least their own version of happy.
Compulsives are very good at delaying gratification. They do it with the assumption that someday in the future they will allow themselves to be happy–when they’ve completed everything they’re supposed to do.
Which we all know never happens.
And until “never” comes, happiness is forbidden.
So I wanted to share some thoughts about how to create conditions in which happiness can evolve organically and realistically, within the parameters of the compulsive perfectionist personality.
But first, a note. This post is about cultivating happiness, which is somewhat different from dealing with depression. For ideas about depression in the compulsive personality, see my three previous posts on the subject:
Does Popular Wisdom Apply to Compulsive Perfectionists?
Popular wisdom tells us that one of the best tools for cultivating happiness is to savor the present moment so that you aren’t regretting the past or worrying about the future.
Being in the moment is a great antidote to the compulsive strategy of delaying gratification. I highly recommend it.
But it needs to be adjusted for particular personalities, since it’s a really difficult antidote for compulsive perfectionists to swallow. And, at least as problematic, it may neglect possibilities of other rewarding aspects of their lives.
Leaning too much on the strategy of appreciating the moment can actually backfire when people feel they should be able to be in the moment, to smell the roses, but can’t.
The way to thread the needle here is paradoxical: compulsive perfectionists may need to take into account that it’s their nature to plan, delay gratification, focus on productivity and seek perfection. We need to learn to savor those tendencies, rather than try to stop them.
If not used consciously, and if used to the exclusion of well-being and relationships, these tendencies hijack our lives through force of habit and need for security. Any possibility for a healthy version of happiness founded on fulfillment, gratitude and contentment through these traits is then lost.
But if used consciously, these compulsive traits can be helpful to us and those around us, and can even make us happy.
Let’s talk about two compulsive tendencies that can either make you happy or miserable: planning and list-making.
Last week I obsessed a fair amount about where to stay when my wife and I go on a short road trip for vacation in the spring, assuming we can. I was trying to find a paradise that’s COVID safe and within our budget, and I wasn’t taking “good enough” as a way to end my obsessing.
I enjoyed the hunt–for a while. Once it wasn’t fun anymore I knew it was time to give it up.
Truth to tell though, I’m glad I waited to settle on a place because I wasn’t really happy with what I had been finding, and, once I did, I was really happy about it. My obsessing did get bad for a little while toward the end, but now and for four months going forward, I can look forward to a nice rest.
It might seem that I’m violating a fundamental axiom of happiness: live in the now. But I am living in the now because I enjoyed the hunt, and now I’m enjoying the anticipation, which is a big part of any vacation for me.
I’ve done this enough to know that the hoped-for paradise is never perfect. But that’s OK. I just like knowing that I have a break coming up that I’ll enjoy. It actually helps me to be more focused on, and enjoy, my work in the present until then.
It’s not so much about the future, it’s about how I feel now.
Even though I do practice mindfulness meditation twice a day, it’s probably unrealistic for me to think that I could live totally in the moment and not enjoy thinking about that vacation in the future.
The Perils and Potentials of Lists
It’s similar with lists. As with planning, lists can improve the chances for happiness, or kill them.
Lists can diminish anxiety that would otherwise preclude happiness. If you’re worried about forgetting to do something you’re supposed to do, it’s hard to be happy. And, on the other hand, it definitely makes some compulsives happy to check things off of that list.
But when lists get too long, too detailed, and too overbearing, they can also deter happiness.
The question is, who is in control of the list? The Productivity Gods, or you?
If you can consciously make lists that encourage balance, you can harness compulsive energy and enlist it in service of your happiness:
- Enjoy making list
- Cuddle with partner
- Savor a good, deep breath
- Enjoy doing projects on list
- Go for a leisurely walk
- Enjoy crossing things off list
Lists should serve humans, not vice versa. When the list starts to make you unhappy, it’s time to let it go.
But otherwise, go for it. Mindfully.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. It’s not so simple. This photo is partially a sarcastic joke. But only partially.
If you’ve got these tendencies, savor them as much as you can. Stop thinking you’re supposed to be smelling the roses when you know that planting and managing the garden is what really makes you happy.
Balancing Productivity and People
So one way to cultivate happiness is to actually savor your compulsive tendencies rather than feel you’re supposed to be more Zen-like.
But there is a big caveat here.
People. You can’t live with them, but you can’t live without them either.
Savoring compulsive tendencies can be a good thing. But if it leads to isolation, or causes distress to those around you, it’s not going to raise your quotient of happiness.
Because compulsives are so perfectionistic, and because other people can be so sloppy in so many ways, being around other people can make it hard for compulsives to be happy. And, perfectionists can make other people very unhappy with their demands and control.
But it’s a rare individual who is truly happy just being alone.
For most compulsives, if you do want to be happier it will take letting go of judgement and appreciating what other people have to offer, as they are. Even when they do get in your way. Judging other people may give you a short jolt of righteous happiness, but it sours with time.
Basic Self-Regard for the Compulsive Perfectionist
This goes for you too. There is a specific reason why it’s important for compulsives to lay off self-judgement and develop basic self-regard.
Self-judgement leads to the need to use compulsive traits such as perfectionism and productivity to prop up self-esteem, and it ruins the possibility of savoring them. Basic self-regard should not be dependent on perfection and achievement. Savoring these things is hard when you need to use them to prove how good you are.
We need to question the idea that we can’t be happy until we’re better people. Self-improvement may seem like the greatest possible good, but it can also become a trap.
Happiness can be cultivated in a realistic way if you have a strong foundation of self-esteem not based on constant comparing and measuring, but on an appreciation of your basic goodness and what you have to offer.
I won’t pretend this is simple or easy. But, as I write about in my book, The Healthy Compulsive, enlisting compulsive and perfectionist energy can help bring out the benefits of those traits, and can help cultivate the conditions for happiness.